There was an Israeli soldier named Colonel David Marcus who was killed during Israel’s war of independence in 1948. In his wallet was found a parable reflecting in a very beautiful way on the meaning of life and death. The parable said:
I am standing upon the seashore. A ship at my side spreads her white sails to the morning breeze and starts for the ocean. She is an object of beauty and strength. And I stand and watch her, until at length she is only a ribbon of white cloud just where the sea and sky come to mingle with each other. Then someone at my side says, “There! She’s gone!” Gone where? Gone from my sight—that is all. She is just as large in mast and hull and spar, and just as able to bear her load of living freight—to the place of destination. Her diminished size is in me, not in her. And just at the moment when someone at my side says, “There! She’s gone!” there are other voices [at the place of destination] ready to take up the glad shout, “There! She comes!” And that is dying (Link, Illustrated Sunday Homilies, Series I, Year C, p. 119).
This is a very profound and joyful understanding of death: seeing it as a passage from one form of life to another. Though we’re no longer in the sight of those we leave behind when we die, we come into the presence of all those deceased loved ones who await us at our destination on the other side. This reflection is also very appropriate in understanding our relationship with God, for He desires that we be journeying ever closer to Him throughout our lives. God is a God of life—and we are most fully alive when we live in Him.
Today the Church invites us to reflect on the life God gives us—both now and in eternity. The reading from 2 Maccabees (7:1-2, 9-14) is set in a time of persecution about 170 years before Christ. Palestine came under the control of a foreign king named Antiochus IV, a wicked and emotionally unstable man who tried to force everyone to adopt a Greek lifestyle and culture. The Jewish people were not allowed to practice their faith; those who did were condemned to death. One family of a mother and her seven sons was arrested and given the choice of dying or eating pork, which was a violation of Jewish law. They all chose to die, and the comments of the first four sons illustrate the Old Testament’s developing understanding of life and death. The first son says that even death is preferable to violating the teachings of their faith; the second states that God will raise up those martyred for their faith and grant them a new life. The third son suggests that this new life will include a resurrection of the body, and the fourth son warns the king and his servants that these promises are made only to the just—not to the wicked. God cares for His people; His power overcomes death, and He rewards those who serve Him faithfully on earth.
This is also Jesus’ message in the Gospel of Luke (20:27-38). The Sadducees were Jews who did not believe in the resurrection of the body, but they cynically used this issue in an effort to trap Jesus in His speech. The command of Moses they referred to, in which a brother had to marry his brother’s widow, was intended to keep property within a family and to carry on a man’s name. The Sadducees demanded to know how this law could possibly be fulfilled if there really was a resurrection from the dead. Jesus corrects their thinking by telling them, first of all, not to understand heaven in earthly terms; life in heaven is radically different, and incomprehensibly better, than anything we’ve known on earth. Secondly, Jesus insists that God can indeed raise the just to new life. He reminds the Sadducees that even though Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were physically dead by the time Moses encountered God at the burning bush, God spoke of them not in the past tense, but in the present tense. All those who seek to know God are always alive in His presence—whether here on earth, or in heaven.
In his Letter to the Thessalonians (2nd Thessalonians 2:16-3:5), St. Paul states that God gives us everlasting encouragement and hope; this means that whether we’re mourning the death of a loved one, or whether we ourselves die, we’re never beyond His loving care. There are some people who might wonder whether God forgets them or takes them for granted. They might say, “I don’t have much sense of God’s presence; He doesn’t seem to answer my prayers—at least not in the way I want. Maybe He’s too busy for me.” This idea, of course, is mistaken. God never forgets us; if He did, we’d instantly cease to exist. God constantly watches over us with a Father’s love; He not only gives us new life, but seeks to deepen and enrich it.
There are other persons who make the opposite mistake; instead of worrying about their relationship with God, they take Him for granted. They might say, “God will watch over me whether I pay attention to Him or not, so why bother praying or going to church? Maybe I’ll think of Him some other time if I’m not too busy, but in the meantime, I’ll merely go through the motions in living out my faith.” This approach to life and death is also wrong—and even dangerous. It limits the scope of God’s life within us, and that degrades and cheapens our own life. God wants to be with us as fully as possible, but being afraid of Him or indifferent to Him keeps this from happening.
If life and death can be described using the image of a ship sailing across the ocean, then we can extend this analogy by saying that we must open the sails of our lives to the wind of divine grace. We must be open to God; we must be true to ourselves; we must be fully alive. If we’re willing to take the risk of being the persons we’re meant to be, God will bless us in ways beyond our imagining. If we wish to live with God in heaven, we must first, here on earth, open our hearts and allow Him to live within us.